Why Are Americans So Bad at Math?

The New York Times has a noteworthy piece on why math education is so poor in the United States. Borrowing examples from how math is taught in Japan, the article outlines how different initiatives to reform math education in America have failed (and why they are likely to continue to fail). Worth the read.

It wasn’t the first time that Americans had dreamed up a better way to teach math and then failed to implement it. The same pattern played out in the 1960s, when schools gripped by a post-Sputnik inferiority complex unveiled an ambitious “new math,” only to find, a few years later, that nothing actually changed. In fact, efforts to introduce a better way of teaching math stretch back to the 1800s. The story is the same every time: a big, excited push, followed by mass confusion and then a return to conventional practices.

The new math of the ‘60s, the new new math of the ‘80s and today’s Common Core math all stem from the idea that the traditional way of teaching math simply does not work. As a nation, we suffer from an ailment that John Allen Paulos, a Temple University math professor and an author, calls innumeracy — the mathematical equivalent of not being able to read. On national tests, nearly two-thirds of fourth graders and eighth graders are not proficient in math. More than half of fourth graders taking the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress could not accurately read the temperature on a neatly drawn thermometer.

I hadn’t heard of this parable/story before, but it is quite the embarrassment:

One of the most vivid arithmetic failings displayed by Americans occurred in the early 1980s, when the A&W restaurant chain released a new hamburger to rival the McDonald’s Quarter Pounder. With a third-pound of beef, the A&W burger had more meat than the Quarter Pounder; in taste tests, customers preferred A&W’s burger. And it was less expensive. A lavish A&W television and radio marketing campaign cited these benefits. Yet instead of leaping at the great value, customers snubbed it.

Only when the company held customer focus groups did it become clear why. The Third Pounder presented the American public with a test in fractions. And we failed. Misunderstanding the value of one-third, customers believed they were being overcharged. Why, they asked the researchers, should they pay the same amount for a third of a pound of meat as they did for a quarter-pound of meat at McDonald’s. The “4” in “¼,” larger than the “3” in “⅓,” led them astray.

Maybe we need to develop more system-wide efforts to showcase teaching styles to observers, like they do in Japan:

In Japan, teachers had always depended on jugyokenkyu, which translates literally as “lesson study,” a set of practices that Japanese teachers use to hone their craft. A teacher first plans lessons, then teaches in front of an audience of students and other teachers along with at least one university observer. Then the observers talk with the teacher about what has just taken place. Each public lesson poses a hypothesis, a new idea about how to help children learn. And each discussion offers a chance to determine whether it worked. Without jugyokenkyu, it was no wonder the American teachers’ work fell short of the model set by their best thinkers.

What else matters? That teachers embrace new teaching styles, and persevere:

Most policies aimed at improving teaching conceive of the job not as a craft that needs to be taught but as a natural-born talent that teachers either decide to muster or don’t possess. Instead of acknowledging that changes like the new math are something teachers must learn over time, we mandate them as “standards” that teachers are expected to simply “adopt.” We shouldn’t be surprised, then, that their students don’t improve.

Here, too, the Japanese experience is telling. The teachers I met in Tokyo had changed not just their ideas about math; they also changed their whole conception of what it means to be a teacher. “The term ‘teaching’ came to mean something totally different to me,” a teacher named Hideto Hirayama told me through a translator. It was more sophisticated, more challenging — and more rewarding. “The moment that a child changes, the moment that he understands something, is amazing, and this transition happens right before your eyes,” he said. “It seems like my heart stops every day.”

Worth reading in entirety here.

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